Caring for One Another in Irma’s Shadow


By: Lee Anne Johnson, a Climate Caretakers in Ft. Myers, FL

There’s a terrible pit-of-the-stomach feeling that accompanies an approaching disaster. Before Irma, I had only experienced it second-hand, such as neighboring cities devastated by a tornado or flood. When my husband and I lived Kenya, a lack of seasonal rains would become drought, and drought became famine. This hit closer to home, because friends were affected and we were part of coordinating relief efforts, but I was still physically insulated from the disaster by my comparative wealth. Worst case, I could always drive to Nairobi and get supplies from a supermarket there. Not to mention, I could stop at an upscale shopping mall while I was there, have a glass of wine at a restaurant, and forget the troubles of the world altogether for a bit.

Many of us in Florida, myself included, watched with dread as Hurricane Irma ravaged its way through the Caribbean and turned north toward us. I quickly murmured prayers as I watched news stories of fuel and water shortages, or gathered containers for water, or packed my most treasured items (drawings of our kids done by a dear friend, a hard drive of digital baby photos). Natural disasters are unpredictable. In as much as we have developed technologies to control the world around us, we still can’t predict what exactly will happen with a hurricane. The uncertainty I felt produced lurching prayers asking God for safety, for lives to be spared, or for divine protection for all who would be affected.

Water has a remarkable ability to store heat. Hurricanes are driven by warm ocean waters – the warmer the ocean surface, the more energy to “feed” the hurricane. Our tropical climate naturally predisposes us to a yearly hurricane season. Over the years, as our climate has warmed, most of that heat energy gets absorbed by and stored in the ocean. The extremely warm waters of the Atlantic basin powered Hurricane Irma, allowing it to reach a sustained size and magnitude that has never been witnessed before. This year, two category 4 storms have ravaged the U.S. within two weeks of each other. Is this a symptom of climate change? Is this to be our “new normal”? Quite possibly. As an individual interested in both science and faith, I know that environment is changing and that the brunt of this change will be shouldered by those living in poverty worldwide.

Natural disasters bring out the best and worst in people. The worst is due to fear, and I get it. The sheer scope of Hurricane Irma made fearing for our survival a reality. And fear makes people hoard and fight over resources. I also witnessed incredible kindness as people went around neighborhoods helping board up homes, volunteering in shelters and offering people places to stay through the storm. Community buoys us up and is a physical embodiment of God’s spirit; it’s one of the ways He provides us comfort and strength to get through the really hard times in life.

While my family and friends came out of Irma relatively unscathed, I know others who weren’t as fortunate in our community. The devastation and loss of life caused by Hurricane Irma was much worse throughout the Caribbean.

As we look toward what the future potentially has in store, I hold onto the hope of both faith and science. Our faith reminds us of the inherent love that God has for all people and His creation. I hold on to the hope that we can use the ingenuity of science and the power of community to find ways to both care for God’s people and care for God’s creation. These two things do not have to be mutually exclusive. People of faith are poised to be a driving force for reconciliation in our world, demonstrating that we can be both climate caretakers and caretakers of one another.

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